Guest blogger AdamS continues his stint at BCC. See his previous entry here.
One striking feature of early Mormonism is the boldness with which Joseph Smith and other elders re-witnessed ancient sacred events. Through visions, stones and dreams they sought out new insight and interpretation. We take these extended views very seriously; the most obvious examples being the Book of Mormon accounts of Christ’s resurrection, the retranslation of the Bible through revelation, and the Abrahamic texts. A micro-example is from the current New Testament S.S. manual, in which the vision of Orson Whitney is quoted.
Presently He arose and walked to where those Apostles were kneeling—fast asleep! He shook them gently, awoke them, and in a tone of tender reproach, untinctured by the least show of anger or impatience, asked them plaintively if they could not watch with him one hour.
I love how Orson adds details to this often-discussed exchange between the suffering Savior and the sleeping disciples. Christ shakes them gently, his reproach is tender, and his act shows no impatience.
Early alchemical literature is infused with similar extensions of biblical narratives. The most common account addressed by the adepts is The Fall. Often the alchemists infuse Adam with a sophisticated knowledge of alchemical theory and possession of the elixir of life (evidenced by his extreme longevity). My favorite example of this is from The Glory of the World where we learn that:
On the 6th day of the 1st year of the world, that is to say, on the 15th day of March, God created the first man, Adam, of red earth, in a field near Damascus, […] He [Adam] saw that [physical substances] derive their origin from the dry and the moist elements, and that they are again transmuted into the dry and moist. Of all these things Adam took notice, and especially of that which is called the first Matter. For he who knows how all things are transmuted into their first Matter, has no need to ask any questions.
Alchemical skills are also attributed to Moses, who is considered a very knowledgeable alchemical adept. In Goldmakers, the author points out that the Exodus 32:20 operation of transmuting gold into a drinkable substance (called aurum potabile) is a sign of an experienced alchemist. When Moses was competing with the Egyptian magicians, he used a chemical recipe to make the rod turn into a serpent:
…the rod is made of a paste of bay-laurel, quicksilver, and sulphur, and stuck together with the gum of the bush Astralogus from Asia Minor. Such a rod, when thrown upon a charcoal fire, turns into a long writhing mass-pharoah’s serpent-which gives off poisonous fumes.”
To me, such examples signify dissatisfaction with the limited accounts of the bible and an intense longing for deeper understanding of scripture. They may also serve the purpose of making the alchemists seem more orthodox. Alchemists were a persecuted bunch with anti-chrysopoeian laws and papal inquiries threatening them throughout the middle ages. Most of the adepts in that time were devout Christians, and what better way to justify one’s actions than to demonstrate a biblical precedent?